“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk,” wrote Hegel. His point was that true historical understanding only becomes possible as the phenomenon we wish to understand is in the past. We are only now beginning to learn what the passing of Christianity out of the West means.
Ever heard of “whole body gestation”? It’s the idea of women choosing to donate their bodies — brains dead, but otherwise intact, and the plug on life support not yet pulled — to be impregnated, and to bring a baby to term for a couple that wants one. I learned about it through this tweet:
Some years back, when I was writing The Benedict Option, a senior physician who worked at the time in a top medical facility in the US, told me that as a believing Christian, he was horrified by the things he could see coming down the pipeline. He said he knew a few other believing Christians on staff, and would take them aside and try to engage them in conversation about this stuff. He said every one of them shut down. Their cognitive dissonance was overwhelming. He came to realize that they had to live in denial about what they were participating in to be able to maintain their careers and their faith. He no longer works at that facility.
I’m just about to finish C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength. I finally got around to reading it at the strong urging of “Will,” the ex-occultist I mentioned in my previous post. He said that the prophetic vision that Lewis lays out in that novel tracks very closely to what he learned from the demonic intelligences with whom he was in close contact during the years he worshiped them. Lewis’s novel, the third in his Space Trilogy, centers on the NICE, an organization of scientists and social planners that endeavors to control humanity through technology and rationality, eliminating all things that are truly human. Ultimately, they are in service of demonic intelligences. The battle to stop NICE, then, is ultimately a spiritual battle. Will said that this is pretty much what the plans of the demons are to destroy us. Is he crazy? Maybe. But I don’t think so. For one thing, I believe in demons, and for another, I know a lot more about Will than I can say here, and I believe he was genuinely in touch with evil potencies, at a very high level. He no longer is, but is living out a very painful recovery.
(Side note: a Christian friend emailed to say that Will’s take seems too extreme. Maybe so, I said; I dunno. I told my friend about a pal I had in college, who attended another school, where she was getting a psychology degree. She was a standard liberal, either not a Christian, or the kind who held her Christianity lightly. I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, she told me once, when we were home for Christmas break, that she had spent time that semester doing an internship in a mental-health inpatient rehab clinic. A number of the clients were teenagers who had been in the occult, and had their minds fried by the experience. She said all of them now identified with hard-core fundamentalist Christianity. She hated that about them, but said that they had all been so shattered, psychologically, by their experience in the occult that they ran to the farthest opposite thing they could find, and tolerated zero middle ground, because living in the middle ground, and trying to be tolerant and open-minded, is how they started their journey into devil worship.)
Whether or not you believe Will specifically, it seems to me no question at all that we have entered into a period of history in which the satanic — literally, I think, but let’s say figuratively, for the sake of argument — reigns. If you don’t want to think of this literally, then what do I mean by “figuratively”? By “satanic,” I mean an ethic that places Promethean humanity in the position of deciding to play God. Yuval Noah Harari, Silicon Valley’s favorite philosopher, has predicted that we are on the verge of becoming “Homo Deus” — God-man — thanks to technology. We are now, or soon will be, capable of controlling life itself, to an unprecedented degree. This is the primordial sin, the sin that is the fount of all other sins. Even if you don’t believe that Genesis is literally true, it is undoubtedly true as myth, in the sense that it identifies rebellion against God (first by Lucifer, then by humanity deceived by him) as the original sin. The serpent in the garden promised Adam and Eve that they could becoming like God, if only they would follow his direction. Everything else followed.
You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to recognize the profound truth of that statement. I recall this morning reading in James Billington’s great history of Russia, The Icon And The Axe, how a vogue for Satanism swept the Russian elites in the years before the Revolution. Billington doesn’t talk about it in terms of literal cult activity, but rather as a cultural phenomenon. Cultural elites openly admired Lucifer as a self-made man, so to speak, as a Romantic figure who lived life on his own terms. They saw his model as something to aspire to: the idea that by rebelling against all forms of received authority, especially the Church, self-liberated man could build paradise on earth. We see how that worked out for the Russians.
I am reminded too of something an Anglican ordinand told me last summer. Prior to entering seminary, he worked at a senior level in an advertising agency in London, handling major accounts. He told me that everybody in his office was to some degree involved seriously with the occult, and that there were even a couple of actual Satanists. They described Satanism as learning how to be the most complete Self. Of course. It always was. This is what Lewis presents, in a fictional model, in his novel.
We have gone very far down this road. Reading Lewis last night, the hero of his novel says towards the end (no spoilers) that the West has been lost to Christianity, and wherever the West touches in the world, the light of truth fades. A passage:
“You do not understand,” he said. “The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might to East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is all over [the Earth].”
Lewis wrote this in 1945, the year of triumph over Hitler! He saw how hollow the victory was. He knew, as T.S. Eliot knew, that the West was already post-Christian. Can anybody possibly doubt it now? Well, yes, they can, and they do. All those physicians and medical researchers I mentioned above, even the Christian ones, must at some level believe that they are agents of Progress. If they didn’t, they couldn’t in good conscience do what they’re doing. Treating corpses as incubators so people who want children can have them: if that’s not satanic, what is? It’s the total instrumentalization of human life. But then, we laid the groundwork for that the first time we made a baby in a test tube. The principle is established; the only question is how far we will go in realizing it.
It is easier to perceive how decadent the West is when you live in a country like Hungary, which is certainly part of the West, but where there remains some resistance to its ideology. I’ve lived in the former Eastern Europe for most of the past year and a half, and have traveled a lot here. I wish that my fellow conservative, and conservative Christian, Americans could see what I’ve seen. Our country is not what we think it is. Through our government and through leading institutions of the private sphere, we are pushing our ideology on these people, and giving them no way out. Specifically, we are pushing them to abandon the traditional model of the family, and to train their children to rebel against their own bodies, and to come to want to sever their penises and breasts from their bodies, and have their uteruses scooped out — the organs of generation and nurture — from their bodies, in order to be their Most Complete Selves. Can you not see what is happening? Or are you — are we — so gulled by propaganda and comfort, and nostalgic memories of the America we used to be, that we prefer to live in lies?
If only there were an alternative. China? You mean the techno-totalitarian atheist police state? Russia? Oh, please. Russia is mired in its own deep corruption. I’ll say it again: I condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and believe strongly that Russian troops should go back home. But let us not pretend that what the West is fighting for using its Ukrainian proxies is a civilization of light, freedom, and goodness. If only it were! America and western Europe want to inject Ukraine with “the poison brewed in these West lands,” and tell them they are drinking a deep draught of Freedom™. Maybe the West can use the intact corpses of brain-dead (but still biologically alive) Ukrainian women wounded in war to raise babies for wealthy American couples. Markets in everything!
Back in the year 2000, which seems an eon ago, Jody Bottum wrote a prophetic essay for the Weekly Standard: “The Pig-Man Cometh”. Excerpt:
On Thursday, October 5, it was revealed that biotechnology researchers had successfully created a hybrid of a human being and a pig. A man-pig. A pig-man. The reality is so unspeakable, the words themselves don’t want to go together.
Extracting the nuclei of cells from a human fetus and inserting them into a pig’s egg cells, scientists from an Australian company called Stem Cell Sciences and an American company called Biotransplant grew two of the pig-men to 32-cell embryos before destroying them. The embryos would have grown further, the scientists admitted, if they had been implanted in the womb of either a sow or a woman. Either a sow or a woman. A woman or a sow.
There has been some suggestion from the creators that their purpose in designing this human pig is to build a new race of subhuman creatures for scientific and medical use. The only intended use is to make animals, the head of Stem Cell Sciences, Peter Mountford, claimed last week, backpedaling furiously once news of the pig-man leaked out of the European Union’s patent office. Since the creatures are 3 percent pig, laws against the use of people as research subjects would not apply. But since they are 97 percent human, experiments could be profitably undertaken upon them and they could be used as living meat-lockers for transplantable organs and tissue.
But then, too, there has been some suggestion that the creators’ purpose is not so much to corrupt humanity as to elevate it. The creation of the pig-man is proof that we can overcome the genetic barriers that once prevented cross-breeding between humans and other species. At last, then, we may begin to design a new race of beings with perfections that the mere human species lacks: increased strength, enhanced beauty, extended range of life, immunity from disease. “In the extreme theoretical sense,” Mountford admitted, the embryos could have been implanted into a woman to become a new kind of human — though, of course, he reassured the Australian media, something like that would be “ethically immoral, and it’s not something that our company or any respectable scientist would pursue.”
But what difference does it make whether the researchers’ intention is to create subhumans or superhumans? Either they want to make a race of slaves, or they want to make a race of masters. And either way, it means the end of our humanity.
You can’t say we weren’t warned. This is the island of Dr. Moreau. This is the brave new world. This is Dr. Frankenstein’s chamber. This is Dr. Jekyll’s room. This is Satan’s Pandemonium, the city of self-destruction the rebel angels wrought in their all-consuming pride.
But now that it has actually come — manifest, inescapable, real — there don’t seem to be words that can describe its horror sufficiently to halt it. May God have mercy on us, for our modern Dr. Moreaus — our proud biotechnicians, our most advanced genetic scientists — have already announced that they will have no mercy.
That seems almost quaint now. If you had told people back then that in just over twenty years, scientists would propose using corpses as incubators, would they have believed you? If you had said that in that time, the US Government would have put itself on the side of educating American children to consider that they might be the opposite sex, or neither sex at all, and that same government would be defending surgical and chemical procedures to change children’s sex (supposedly) — would people have thought it was serious? If you had told them that this kind of propaganda would be all over popular culture, and even elementary schools and kindergartens would be teaching it to kids, they would have mocked you as an alarmist. If you had said that schools, even middle schools, would stock on their shelves illustrated books for kids that teach them how to suck a penis, and encouraged them to sign up for apps that allow them to meet gay men for anonymous sex, you would have been shouted down as a fundagelical loony. And if you had said in the year 2000 that before the decade is out, children would have in their hands a device that allowed them to instantly access hardcore pornography — gang bangs, bestiality, rape, anything you want — and not only that, but that parents, even well-meaning conservative parents, would deliver these devices into the hands of children … nobody would have believed you.
It has all come to pass. All of it. And they’re just getting started.
Almost half of young people believe girls expect sex to involve physical aggression, according to a report on pornography which warned that now is a “vital moment” to ensure children are protected against harmful online content.
The newly published research found that one in 10 children in England have viewed pornography aged just nine, with half of those surveyed having seen it by the time they reached the age of 13.
The Children’s Commissioner said the consumption of pornography is “widespread” among children, and highlighted harmful effects including the belief among 47% of young people aged between 16 and 21 that girls “expect” physical aggression in sex, and 42% who said they believed most girls “enjoy” acts of sexual aggression.
This is the world in which we now live: one in which you can buy child sex dolls, and one of the most powerful media companies in the world, Meta, allows them to be promoted on its platforms (the images are of the dolls, by the way, not of actual human beings):
This is also the world we live in:
A Christian feminist friend who is active in anti-porn activism tells me that girls in Christian schools are having to deal with boys — young boys — making sexual groaning sounds at them all the time, even in chapel. She also tells me that it is becoming impossible, even in Christian schools where she used to speak, to give talks about transgenderism and its threat to girls and women. It’s not nice. Or rather, not NICE.
This is what it means to live in a post-Christian world — a world in which the standards taught by the religion of the Bible have been repudiated. We are not creating Paradise; we are creating Hell.
This new order is being cemented into place all over. Soon there won’t be any cultural memory of what it was like in the Before Times. This is what the woke campaign to replace old statues with new is about. I talked about this in yesterday’s post, but let me extend the point. Historian Edward Watts’s great book The Final Pagan Generation, which I can’t recommend strongly enough, is about the way fourth-century Roman elites regarded their changing times. That was the century that the Roman Empire flipped from pagan to Christian. It started with Constantine’s Edict of Milan near the beginning of the century, but simply declaring that Christianity is the religion of the Empire is not sufficient. The entire century featured struggles over power within the culture. There were huge fights over statuary, as both pagans and Christians understood that what is held up as monumental in public expresses the unseen order undergirding the Empire.
We find the violent struggles between Christians and pagans — first the persecution of Christians early in the Christian era, and then, once Christians were gaining power, their abuse of pagans — as distasteful, but the truth is, both sides understood the stakes in their contest. When I visited the ruins of Ephesus late last year, and stood in the theater mentioned in Acts 19, where local pagans tried to gin themselves up into a pogrom against St. Paul and his companions, I understood in a way I never had that this Christian minority truly was a threat to the entire imperial social order. In other words, though I obviously grieve over what the pagans did to the early church — and it was horrible — I have to concede that they well understood the seriousness of the threat to what they considered to be right and good. Had the religion of Jesus not been monotheistic and universalist, it would have been easy to absorb into the polytheistic imperial order. But it was, like Judaism, exclusively monotheistic, but unlike Judaism (which was tolerated as a tribal religion), Christianity was universalist. It made converts. To become a Christian was to turn your back on paganism. In Acts 19, the trouble starts when Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, realizes that if the Christians succeed in their evangelical efforts, people will stop coming to Ephesus to pray in the massive Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and the money he and his fellow silversmiths make by fashioning devotional idols for the pilgrims will disappear.
There really is no way around this conflict. Our liberal framework has blinded us to a significant degree to the nature of power dynamics between radically incompatible frameworks. “Religious tolerance” is a great idea — one I support — as long as the religions being tolerated generally agree on things. But the Church of Satan has done a brilliant job of showing how absurd liberal religious tolerance is, by forcing public spaces to erect Satanic statues and imagery, based on the First Amendment. You have to hand it to them: they know how to exploit the weaknesses of secular liberalism. What we’re living through now is an unmasking of the true nature of the conflict — and the feebleness with which liberalism can defend the Good.
It’s like this: if “free speech” makes widely distributed hardcore pornography legal and easily available, is “free speech” not, then, a civilizational suicide pill? This is a question we have to face, one put to us by technology.
“Freedom of religion” directs us to tolerate Satanism and the occult. This is one meaning of the statues that are now in public spaces in New York City, and in the former Lee Circle in New Orleans. If you are a strict materialist, you have no particular problem with this. It’s all about self-expression, or celebrating diversity. (Though you should probably think hard about the deeper set of cultural values that those religious symbols carry with them.) If you are a typical American Christian, you might think along similar lines. I once had a liberal Protestant friend who collected Haitian voodoo paraphernalia, because she liked the design, and liked feeling all multiculti. But if you are a Christian whose ideas about matter and spirit are not modern, then you understand — or you really should understand — that it is not possible to be neutral about these symbols. They mean something. Matter matters.
In researching my book on re-enchantment, I’ve become far more aware of how extreme late modern metaphysics in the West are, compared to how peoples elsewhere in the world — Christian and otherwise — regard the structure of reality. A few years ago, I was in a cab in Boston. My cab driver was Haitian. He played Evangelical Christian pop music on the car radio, so I told him I was a Christian. We got to talking about Haiti. He told me about the things that he grew up with there, in that voodoo-dominated culture, and the things he had seen with his own eyes. It’s one of the reasons he wanted to escape. He told me that he drives a number of professors from Boston-area colleges, and sometimes they, noticing that he’s Haitian from his ID posted in the cab screen, want to talk about voodoo. They all end up laughing at what he tells them, even if they’re trying to be respectful. He said they see him as a poor superstitious Third Worlder. We talked about how to them, their mental framework rules out completely the idea that the kind of things that are part of everyday life in Haiti can be real. The cabbie told me that his son was born and raised in Boston, but when the boy turns 14, he plans to take him to Haiti to visit family, but also to see that the sophisticated Bostonians around whom he was raised are living in spiritual and metaphysical delusion.
Look, I know this sounds bonkers to lots of you. But I ask you to interrogate yourself, to ask yourself if you think it’s crazy because you can’t bear to think that it might be true. Are you sure that strict materialism is true? What would falsify it for you? I had a friendly conversation with a strict materialist friend I visited late last year, and told him some of the things I had actually seen with my own eyes over the year, things that falsify materialism on their face. He still couldn’t believe it. There must have been some sort of trickery involved, he said, because that’s not how things work. I love my friend, and believe him to be one of the dearest and kindest people I know. But his faith in materialism is as rigid as any fundamentalist Christian’s is in his own model.
But even if you are a strict materialist, and you think that there’s no more meaning inherent in a statue of an African goddess in New Orleans than in a statue of the Virgin Mary, you still have to confront the cultural fact that statues, like all public art, express a shared social order. The reason the statue of Robert E. Lee came down off the pillar in the former Lee Circle in New Orleans is because the social order that put the statue up in the first place has died, or at least is on its deathbed, and unable or unwilling to defend itself. It was, of course, never the case that the black population of New Orleans believed it was represented by the Lee statue, but it was true that they had no political power. They do now, and that’s why all the Confederate monuments in the city came down, for better or for worse. I said that public art represents a “shared” social order, but that’s not always true. The Lee statue signified the power of white New Orleanians over black ones. It is entirely understandable that black New Orleanians, and whites who sympathize with them, wanted Confederate statues gone. It is also manifestly true now that the new cultural order in New Orleans believes that it is a good thing to erect a statue honoring an African goddess, with a serpent. It doesn’t mean that everybody loves the statue, and certainly not that everybody worships pagan African deities. But it does mean that a statue that would have been unthinkable in the not too distant past, because it would have been seen (probably by most New Orleans blacks too) as sacrilege, is now granted a place of honor in the city.
That means something. The pagans and the Christians of the fourth century would have understood this well. In his 1989 book How Societies Remember, the English social scientist Paul Connerton wrote about how we can only understand the present by understanding the past — and that social memory (or cultural memory) is a constructed thing. Connerton writes about how we construct cultural memory out of physical artifacts, broadly speaking. Not only of statues and paintings, but of things like chopping off the head of the sovereign to symbolize the end of the old order and the beginning of the new one, and changing the fashions people wore, to convey the changing of the order (not the evolution of the order, but the revolutionary changing of it). Connerton:
As Ross Douthat wrote yesterday, the pagan-ish statue placed on top of the New York Supreme Court building in Manhattan explicitly symbolizes repudiation of the Christian-dominated social order:
Recently a statue appeared on a New York courthouse, occupying a plinth near famous lawgivers like Moses and Confucius. It’s a golden woman, or at least a female figure, with braided hair shaped like horns, roots or tendrils for arms and feet, rising from a lotus flower.
The figure’s sculptor, the Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander, has emphasized her work’s political significance. The golden woman wears a version of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar, and she’s meant to symbolize female power in a historically male-dominated legal world and to protest Roe v. Wade’s reversal.
But the work is clearly an attempt at a religious icon as well, one forged in a blurring of spiritual traditions. It matches a similar statue by the same artist that bears the word “Havah,” evoking the Arabic and Hebrew name for Eve, and thereby making a feminist claim on the monotheistic tradition. But the imagery of the courthouse statue is also pantheistic, the roots and flower evoking nature-spirituality, “a magical hybrid plant-animal,” as one art critic put it. And then finally it’s very hard not to see the braids-as-horns, the tendrils that look a bit tentacle-like, as an appropriation of Christian images of the demonic in a statue that stands against the politics of conservative Christianity.
He’s right, though there will be the usual liberal explaining-away of the religious meaning and implications of this image, in an attempt to convince us all that it is either positive or benign. Our minds have been so opened by liberal habits that our brains have fallen out. This is why people allow themselves to be convinced that it is “celebrating diversity” to allow their children’s minds to be colonized by teachers who try to alienate children from their bodies, and destroy their stable sense of selves. It’s as if late liberalism has become the kind of poison that anesthetizes as it works to dissolve conscience.
It’s mostly there in Lewis, in That Hideous Strength. The NICE (National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) is the smiling progressive face masking something extremely sinister. It is the kind of thing you get when Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has displace actual Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam) in your society. We are living it. Us, the Pig-Men, the gestational corpses, Havah, Mark Zuckerberg, all of us. We are summoning things that cannot easily be unsummoned. I used to know a man back in Louisiana who was devoted to conjuring demons, and said he finally managed to do it. He thought they were under his control. But when he tried to leave his solo-practitioner occultism, and become a Christian, he discovered who really controlled him. He went back to his real master. He had summoned things that could not be easily unsummoned.
Philip Rieff’s theory of culture held that every culture is defined by what it forbids. When he first published this in the 1960s, he said that we in the modern, post-Christian West are trying something never before seen in history: to build a culture on forbidding forbidding. Rieff said it couldn’t be done, and of course he was right about that. The owl of Minerva teaches us that “liberal tolerance” was just a phase to neutralize defenders of the old order until it could be erased in the hearts and minds of Westerners (at least those in the elite leadership classes), to prepare the way for the new one. Conservatives in Mainline Protestant churches who were routed by liberals who began by only seeking “tolerance” for different views know how this works. So too do people who remember circa 2005, when the tolerance mantra was “How does my gay neighbors’ marriage hurt my own?” No sensible opponent of same-sex marriage thought the matter was as crude as that. But we saw that there would be a logical and inevitable move from toleration of same-sex marriage to mandatory affirmation of all things LGBT. And we are just about there. Two radically incompatible social orders can only live uneasily together, and then for a short time. I don’t blame pro-LGBT people in the progressive churches: if they are right about the moral status of homosexuality and transgenderism, then it really is intolerable discrimination to permit members of the church to hold to the old order’s views. It was always going to come down to an argument over first principles. “Tolerance” is only a virtue within a broadly shared cultural framework. In Europe, for example, there will inevitably be a showdown between Muslims and the post-Christian social order. Either Muslims will have to accept being less Muslim (by Islam’s own historical norms and self-understanding), or the dominant social order will have to become more Islamic. They are too radically different to co-exist. This is not to say Muslims are bad people, or that secular liberals are bad people. It’s simply to say that what both sides believe in as fundamentally true about the nature of reality, and how society should be organized around that understanding, cannot be reconciled.
I wrote The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies to wake people up and to encourage the formation of resistance. Now, the English writer and recent Christian convert Paul Kingsnorth is doing extremely important work analyzing “the Machine,” as he calls it. If you do not subscribe to his Substack, you are missing some of the most vital prophetic cultural analysis of our time. The Machine — the system that has us by the throat — operates on a metaphysical basis that says matter does not matter, that it’s just stuff we can use to get what we want. If we also come to see human beings as nothing more than matter — chemistry — then it follows that we can do whatever we want to humans. Whenever human beings are reduced to data — as in Auschwitz — there is present what we Christians call Antichrist. Seeing the person as nothing but data (“Organism is algorithm,” trumpets Yuval Noah Harari) erases the image of God in that person. We are doing this now, in ten thousand different ways. And very few people who ought to know better are doing anything to resist. They don’t even see it — maybe because they don’t want to. This is how the Machine wins. This is how the one dark wing delivers us to a permanent midnight.
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UPDATE: This interesting bit from the progressive essayist David Rieff’s Substack newsletter today, which is mostly about the change of language (today’s essay, not the Substack itself):
Another key element in all this is the contemporary confidence that we can for all intents and purposes change our identities, which of course includes our social attitudes, virtually as we will it. People horrified by the Trans movement frequently look for conspiratorial explanations: for example, that somehow academic critical theory begat queer theory and queer theory, along with many of the other strains of academic though begat the identitarian ideology (it considers itself left; whether it is or not is an open question) and DiAngelo-style “anti-racism.’ But a much more credible explanation is that speed, not only its Daniel Halevy sense of the acceleration of history but in its Anthropocene sense of the acceleration of expectations, has played a far larger role in making movements that in previous epochs took decades and sometimes centuries to crystallize, gain adherents, spread their influence before ultimately replacing the system they sought to overturn, have the capacity to transform attitudes in what, in historical terms, the blink of an eye, which is precisely what the Trans movement has already done.
If there’s a way of stopping this bullet train, I don’t see it. We had better start figuring this out, now, otherwise we are dead.